Cafe Witness

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Baltimore Bound

uss constellation baltimore maryland

Last Friday, Ann and I went to Baltimore. She had a job interview that morning.

On the way home, they emailed to offer her the position.

Suddenly, I've gone from a champion of Pittsburgh to a soon-to-be transplant to Baltimore. What a whirlwind one email makes.

Since I freelance for a living, nothing I do professionally will change despite my new address. (In fact, since most of my current work comes from the New York area, I'll actually be closer to NYC in Baltimore -- maybe I can cut down on the car-destroying road trips.)

Nor will my cultural identity change drastically. To wit:

Pittsburgh is a wonderful, historic, affordable and underrated city with an identity crisis and an ongoing youth population drain.

Baltimore -- from everything I've read so far -- seems to be a wonderful, historic, affordable and underrated city with an identity crisis (namely, its "kid brother" proximity to Washington, DC) and an equally debilitating population drain.

So far, so similar.

The big change will happen in my own personal fishbowl. I've been fortunate to meet dozens of great people here in Pittsburgh whom I consider my friends, acquaintances or the regularly interesting extras in my life. I'm sure those same personalities exist in Baltimore, but our shared Pittsburgh experience won't be in place to help break the ice.

This move also has direct implications for my involvement in PodCamp Pittsburgh (i.e., not much involvement at all) and the future of Something to Be Desired, the web series I've been producing here in Pittsburgh since 2003. I haven't yet decided what that future will be, so I'll consider it over the next several weeks of apartment hunting, U-Haul packing and the waving of goodbyes.

And thus, this is the beginning of my hat tip to Pittsburgh -- a place I'll always consider to be some part of "home," no matter where I live -- and my opening bow toward Baltimore, which will become my home for the next chapter in this occasionally surprising book I'm reading called "life."

I wonder if Baltimore has pierogies...

Photo by stevehdc.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We Need a New Water Cooler

Now that Twitter has removed a feature they claim only 2% of their users were using (and which nearly everyone I follow has been complaining about, which I guess means we ARE that 2%), something has become clear:

We need a new water cooler.

Twitter is often described as a "virtual water cooler," serving as a gathering place for people who work remotely. It's where we who don't have officemates (or who don't care to speak with the same 10 people all week long) go to bounce ideas off people half a world away, in real time, with minimal obligation or investment of attention.

But when the service terminates one of its own best reasons for existing -- the ability to stumble across other users via "fragmented conversations" (a functionality, it should be stressed, that THE USERS THEMSELVES invented) -- it becomes clear that Twitter is less concerned with serving the needs of its core users than it is with appealing to the masses. (After all, the masses bring the money; the 2% do not.)

And when the service then schedules planned downtime at noon PST on a Wednesday, those of us who rely on it for our daily conversation stream realize it's time to create a backup plan.

You wouldn't keep every document you own on one hard drive, thus stranding yourself if it crashes. So why are the bulk of our conversations contained within one service?

Seduce me, Facebook. Dazzle me, Plurk. Rise from the dead, Jaiku, and provide for us a valid alternative to the service that no one wanted until everyone had to have it.

Image by dennis.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Suddenly, I Need a Car

Last night, I was driving home to Pittsburgh from the Business Smart Tools conference in Connecticut. I was driving uphill, in the rain, and I heard a rattle in my engine. Since my heat shield has been loose numerous times in the life of my car -- a 2000 Honda Civic with 152,000 miles -- I figured I'd need to get it tightened when I got home.

Then, something shot out from underneath my car. Sparking, smoke, a THRUB THRUB THRUB noise coming from the engine...

I decided to pull over.

So, at around 9:30 on a rainy Wednesday night in the middle of I-80, my 2000 Honda Civic came to its final stop. The tow truck driver explained that I'd shot a rod through my engine block, which (if I understand correctly) means a piston escaped from the motor by way of the motor casing. That means the motor has to be replaced, which would involve disassembling (and then reassembling) the entire engine -- around a $1000 to $2000 repair for a car that's worth, at best, $1500.

Side note: I'd introduced Scott Monty from Ford at the BST Conference just a day before. At this rate, I hope I never have to introduce a heart surgeon...

So: Anyone have any car-buying advice for a guy with strictly average credit and a very slim rainy day fund?

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, May 04, 2009

Your Customer Is Not Your Problem

Black humor - customer service

Two very different experiences this past week have taught me a lot about the value of positive customer service -- and the need to create a workplace environment that encourages and sustains it.

When Good Road Signs Go Bad

A week ago, I noticed that the five-way stoplight at the Forward and Murray Avenues intersection of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood was broken. One of the light's cycles -- the side that faces traffic coming off the I-376 exit -- was lasting at least 2-3 times longer than it normally does. This is odd because that's usually NOT a high-traffic approach; it also extends the wait time for those on Murray Avenue, which results in 8-block traffic jams during rush hour.

So I contacted PennDOT, informed them of the problem (via email form), and someone wrote me back within a day to explain that traffic lights are the concern of the municipality, rather than the state. They also said they'd forward my email to the Pittsburgh traffic office -- which, I'll admit, is where I thought this story would end.

Today, I received the following email from Amanda Broadwater, P.E., Municipal Traffic Engineer for the City of Pittsburgh's Department of Public Works - Bureau of Transportation and Engineering:

Dear Mr. Kownacki,

Within the State of Pennsylvania, traffic signals are the jurisdiction of the City. Therefore, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation forwarded your comment to us regarding the intersection of Forward and Murray in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

The City of Pittsburgh has identified [that] loop detectors are malfunctioning at the intersection. This type of problem happens often during wet weather. When this occurs, the maximum time allotted to the approach with the bad loop is displayed during each cycle, rather than the green time being traffic responsive. Obviously this creates greater delays on the other approaches of the intersection.

The electricians will be back on site today to try and remedy the problem. However, it may be necessary to completely replace the loop detectors. If this is the case, a timing change will be needed to ease congestion during preparation of the work. If a timing change is needed, it should be in place by mid week.

I wanted to highlight Amanda's response for two reasons:

* What speedy turnaround time from a pair of agencies that probably receives dozens (if not hundreds) of similar reports every day.

* What a thorough and understandable explanation! I would have expected a form letter saying "thanks, we'll get to it." Instead, Amanda went to the trouble of explaining the issue to me in layman's terms and then suggested a date by which the work should be completed.

On the Other Hand...

Last week, I stopped at a Wendy's just off the Hazleton, PA, exit on I-80. I've been to this Wendy's half a dozen times over the past year, because that exit is a regular pit stop on my business trips between Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

This time, I was one of the only customers in the place, and the staff of 5 or 6 seemed frustrated. Maybe it was because I was disrupting their side work, or because of something their manager may have said moments earlier. Maybe they were just having a bad day.

But when the kid gave me my order and I said "Thanks," and he just grunted at me with the body language that let me know I was his problem, not his customer, it clarified two things for me:

* There's a reason front-end workers in fast food and retail only get paid a minimum wage, and

* I need to stop eating at the Wendy's in Hazleton.

Conversely, although I disagree with their politics, I enjoy the experience of ordering food at Chick-fil-a. Why? Because their employees (at least in Pittsburgh's Waterfront location) are perpetually in good moods. Not the kind of fake smile most employee handbooks insist their cashiers sport, but the kind of jovial attitude that lets me know they enjoy working there -- and that they're happy I'm spending my money with them.

Like PennDOT and Pittsburgh's Department of Public Works, I'm not Chick-fil-a's problem. I'm their customer - and they'd like me to stay that way.

Photo by lawgeek.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,